The Good, the Bad and the Smoggy in the Central Valley


To be honest, living in the Central Valley takes some getting used to, especially if you’re from the coast. It’s an acquired taste.

Oppressive heat in summer. Depressing tule fog in winter. Sure, fall and spring are OK. But where aren’t they?

First-rate culture is scarce. The state capital doesn’t even have a symphony.


One of the attractions--it’s almost a local joke--is the ability to get away, particularly from Sacramento. It’s 90 minutes to San Francisco in one direction, or skiing in another; two hours-plus to the ocean or Tahoe.

But south and north, it’s farm dust and the odor of manure. Around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and up the rivers, there’s a constant threat of winter flooding.

Still, earthquakes aren’t a menace to most people. And it doesn’t take long before you begin to appreciate certain benefits--indeed, to understand that some Central Valley burgs, especially the capital, are among California’s best kept secrets. Or, at least, they have been.

Housing is affordable, compared to L.A. and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Commutes are mostly brief and easy on the psyche.

Outdoor recreation is bountiful.

When I moved here nearly 40 years ago--the first of three times--summer skies were blue and the stars bright. Fishing was easy in the rivers and pheasant hunting was 10 minutes from town--in fact, where I now live.

All this good life, however, has been changing.


Sacramento is now the sixth smoggiest area in the country. A gloomy, beige pall greets motorists as they descend from the Sierra. Even worse is the San Joaquin Valley, from Stockton to Bakersfield. It’s rated the nation’s fourth smoggiest region.


“In a word, it’s a pretty serious situation,” says Josette Merced Bello, spokeswoman for the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Management District in Fresno. The eight-county district meets neither state nor federal standards for healthy air.

“This valley is like a big bathtub and [the smog] sort of gets caught with no place to go,” she says. The analogy is familiar to Angelenos.

Besides harming human health, smog is threatening agriculture, the valley’s No. 1 industry. That makes it also an economic issue. “A number of important [valley] crops produce less yield, mature slowly or suffer tissue damage when grown in smoggy conditions,” notes a recent report by the state Air Resources Board.

And this brings us to the root problem: a population explosion, fed notably by commuters spilling over the Grapevine from L.A. into Bakersfield, and from the Bay Area into the northern San Joaquin Valley, turning farms into houses and freeways into parking lots. In Sacramento, high-tech industry is generating jobs and sprawl.

Up and down the valley, people without job skills are having babies and going on welfare. Many are immigrants from Mexico and Southeast Asia. “The population is growing at a faster pace than the economy,” notes Dan Whitehurst, a former Fresno mayor who is running again. “Livability is becoming more of an issue. But the biggest issue still is jobs.”

That’s because, aside from Sacramento, the Central Valley has not cashed in on California’s economic boom. Unemployment in the San Joaquin Valley is roughly double the state average.

It’s smoggy. Traffic’s getting worse. Farms are disappearing. There aren’t enough jobs. And, says pollster Mark Baldassare, people are “myopic” about their plight.


All this is the subject of a new Baldassare poll of 2,016 Central Valley residents conducted for two think tanks, the Public Policy Institute of California and the Great Valley Center, based in Modesto. It found that people generally are content with where they live, but uncertain about the future. (The survey was reported in Wednesday’s Times.)

Basically, people want it all. They want to protect farmland, but oppose growth control; want to preserve the few remaining wetlands, but also favor building more reservoirs. “You just can’t have it both ways,” Baldassare says.

Decisions need to be made, but people seem ambivalent. A quarter could not name one important public policy issue facing the valley. “That’s not a very high degree of sophistication,” notes Carol Whiteside, a former Modesto mayor who is president of the Great Valley Center.

“We have a huge problem. ‘No way L.A.’ has been our slogan. But if we build nonstop houses, we’ll be worse than L.A. because we’ll have destroyed our [farm] economic base. . . . There’s no regional leadership. More state officials need to decide this area matters and poke their heads up out of the fog.”

The fog and the smog. If not, one day there’ll be no getting used to the place.